I rarely write from a position of annoyance as I don’t think that’s the right approach to contribute to someone else’s thinking. I also rarely write rather personal posts as I try to remain impartial on most issues. Yet, there is an expression circulating widely these days that triggers me to do both. Every time I hear about the ‘new normal’ it feels like there is a little supernova in my head. It is not the ‘new’ part that troubles me; I’m quite happy with new. What I think we should be very cautious about is the persistent use of ‘normal’; this incessant desire to label things as being within the established order of things or not.
“An engine, not a camera”
Words demarcate the boundaries between things; we use them to slice up our environment into more or less arbitrary chunks – spaces of meaning if you will. From this perspective the specific words we use can not under any circumstances be thought of as neutral or innocent. Words do not simply carry meaning around – they create it by virtue of focusing our attention to some aspects of reality while leaving others aside. Donald Alexander Mackenzie puts it brilliantly in the title of his book on modern economic theories – “An engine, not a camera”. Words matter and how we define things is not a trivial matter. Quite the contrary, it might just be the most important thing that we are doing. Hence the issue we have with ‘normal’ – it both betrays a way of thinking and frames our reality in a way that is not necessarily beneficial to us.
Not normal – just habitual
The problem with ‘normal’ lies in the fact that it hints towards naturalness. What we call normal seems to be the pre-established order of things; the way life is supposed to be. The thing is, apart from certain biological aspects, our existence does not fit in such a description. What we usually call normal is simply what we assume life should look like. Is going to bars normal? I’m not aware of anything that supports the notion that people cannot live without this. Taking the train or the tube? Same thing – we can very well cycle or go by car or other means of transportation. Digitalization and ecommerce? Who’s to say that offline is normal and online is not? Work from home? I can’t see a way in which a gathering of 100 people in the same space so they can send emails is more ‘normal’ than doing the same thing from a different location. And I don’t even want to go into the repercussions of using a word like normal when we talk about gender, race, wealth, or nationalism.
What we call ‘normal’ is in fact a much simpler thing – it is what is habitual. We cannot live our lives questioning every aspect of their existence as it would be almost impossible to function. What we (as a society) do instead is figure out a way in which we think things should be and stick to it. This ensures that we have the necessary foundation for communication with each other and makes life predictable. We need not know how our cars operate, at least not until something breaks down. Nor do we need to know how to build houses, how our TV sets work, or how planes fly. We have organized our lives together so we that we trust someone knows these things. It is only when the thin veil of what is taken for granted tears off that we to question things.
Means and ends
The major benefit of the current crisis is that it allows us to ask a very fundamental question – which of the things we are doing are our goals and which are simply means to reaching them. I think many people experience a deeper connection with their values these days, for what we want in our lives is intrinsically linked to what we believe in. Here is how this could work:
- Our current work arrangements (as in working from the office) is simply how we think we will achieve our business results; it serves the latter purpose. Are other arrangements achieving the same results possible? Absolutely, there is no reason why I can’t be writing thins from the beach or my apartment. By all means, corporate culture will be different but then again – it is also a mean towards achieving our purpose.
- Going to bars is not a goal in itself. We might have different motivations for doing it and every single one of them is achievable by other means. Experiencing the warmth of friendship – there is nothing to suggest that you can’t have that during a walk in the park. Meeting new people? No problem – there are a myriad of ways to do that. Getting drunk – the simplest thing to do!
- Going to the beach for your summer holiday? Again, what’s the end result we are trying to achieve? Relaxation – we can also go to the mountains or do yoga. Spending time with your family? We have ample opportunities to do this right now.
The point is, there are always more ways to achieve something that things we want to achieve. We stand to gain a lot from exploring and embracing the diversity of means at our disposal to achieve our goals.
In praise of limitations
Oulipo (Ouvroir de littérature potentielle; “workshop of potential literature”) is a loosely connected group of mostly French writers, founded in the 1960s and still active today. What is remarkable about them is their use of constrains to guide their writing. I can only recommend reading Raymond Queneau’s Exercises in Style for example, in which he tells the same story in 99 distinct ways and his Cent Mille Milliards de Poèmes; The Void is a novel by Georges Perec written without using the letter ‘e’; and in his Life: A User’s Manual the chapters’ order follows the knight’s path on a chessboard.
The writings of Oulipo provide a fantastic example of how constraints can bring out the best of our creativity. In a situation in which the tools we are used to having are not available, we can always find other ways. Isn’t this versatility that makes us, humans, distinctive from other species?
As long as we long for an idealized and illusory ‘normal’ though all these doors are closed for us. We will remain stuck in what we are used to hoping for it to return. Truth being said, it will not, and that is good – life happens in the gaps.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!